March 08, 2012
Last weekend, while traveling up high in a wind-scorched and snow covered alpine valley, two ravens crisscrossed high in the sky, wing to wing, their calls echoed off the exposed vertical rock faces. In a stark, otherwise lonely landscape, the ravens demanded our attention. With our necks craned upwards, the raven in the lead repeatedly initiated a barrel-roll in flight. We were indeed awestruck, but I suspect we were not the subjects this raven was concerned with impressing.
With the sun rushing back to the Northcountry at an astonishing 6 minutes per day, it might seem as if all creatures are reveling in solar cheer. Overhead, ravens have been announcing their presence with greater frequency lately through an incredible diversity of vocalizations and aerobatics. Yet they are not simply paying homage to the sun. It is courtship season for ravens as they pair up, assert dominance of their territory and prepare to nest. And for those of us on the ground, it’s a reminder that spring is on the way.
Ravens are ubiquitous in the north, and although their recognized name may be Common Raven, they are considered by many, including native cultures throughout the world, to be anything but a common bird. Often Raven is referred to in traditional creation stories as the Creator, and sometimes, as in the Haida & Tlingit cultures of the Pacific Northwest, Trickster. This latter reference recognizes the undeniable fact that ravens are perhaps the most intelligent of birds. In fact, their brain is among the largest of any bird species, allowing them the ability to problem solve, manipulate other animals into doing work for them (such as alerting wolves of an animal carcass so the canines can open up the carcass and allow access for the ravens), and deceive onlookers by pretending to cache food. Ravens are highly adaptable and have long been known to climbers on Denali since they have learned the rewards of digging up food caches from the snow along the popular West Buttress route. They have come to recognize bamboo wands in the snow as a potential sign of a cache.
In my mind, this time of year is Raven’s time--a time for us to be awed by their impressive intellect, cleverness and vocalizations, by their aerial acrobatics, to be reminded that although they fly freely, they are as much a part of this wild land as the welcome long sunny days are to the spring.
Make prayers to the Raven
Raven that is,
Raven that was,
Raven that always will be.
Make prayers to the Raven.
Raven, bring us luck.
- From the Koyukon People
April 18, 2011
We’ve now passed the vernal equinox, and our daylight is rushing back in an overwhelming tour-de-force of sunshine. Waking at 6 a.m. reveals the first spots of alpenglow on the surrounding peaks here at our winter office near the park entrance, and at 9 p.m. it’s still possible to read a book by the light of the window. Yes, it does make us eager for summer! By the summer solstice we’ll be able to watch the pinks and oranges of alpenglow on the Alaska Range at midnight!
The return of the long days brings with it the arrival of our spring migrants. A travel weary Dark-eyed Junco graced our bird feeder this week. It’s travel log most likely originated in the Pacific Northwest, where the comparatively mild winters allowed it to wait out the harsh Denali winter. We haven’t quite shaken off winter’s grasp yet with nighttime temps still around 10˚F, so only the very hearty species arrive this early. But soon the migrants will come swooping in, one-by-one, or in flocks, landing exhausted after their journey from across the globe to begin a summer of feeding and breeding.
I’m already feeling the anticipation of spring, and the promise of blooms and birds. We’re currently surrounded by White-winged Crossbills, an amazing bird with, yes, a crossed bill. The shape allows them to pry open their food source, coniferous cones, in order to extract the seeds with their tongues in a feat of mandibular precision. They travel to wherever there’s a bumper crop of cones, sometimes even rearing chicks in the dead of winter when the feast is peak. And “feast” is not an exaggeration, for a single crossbill may consume up to 3,000 seeds in one day!
We’ve seen Golden Eagles and Snow Buntings back already, some of our earlier migrants. In fact, most of the eagles in the park are already incubating their eggs. Experience tells us we can soon expect to see (and hear!) Fox Sparrows, Robins, Varied Thrushes, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. And looking a bit further ahead, I feel giddy with anticipation of hearing my first winnowing Wilson’s Snipe near the melting wetlands that have been locked with ice for the last 7 months.
We have 116 species of birds that breed in the park, ranging from the mighty Trumpeter Swan to the pipsqueak Ruby-crowned Kinglet. June is peak season for bird watching in Denali and you don’t need to be a “twitcher” (avid bird watcher) to enjoy the park’s avifauna. Some species have stories of unbelievable strength, such as the Arctic Tern that undertakes an arduous migration from Antarctica to us here in the sub-arctic, and some of mystery, such as the discovery of the first Surfbird nest here in Denali National Park in 1926. During the first week of our summer season, starting on June 6th, we host a week at Camp Denali in honor of these remarkable creatures: Bird Migration & Conservation. Our featured speaker this summer is former director of Audubon Alaska, Stan Senner. For those who are interested, he’ll be leading bird-focused outings during the day, and in the evenings he’ll present to all the guests staying at Camp Denali (this is an offering specific to Camp Denali; North Face Lodge will be operating with its normal programming presented by staff naturalists). The following week we turn our attention to wildflowers with Wildflower Week, but it doesn’t mean that the birds have disappeared. In fact, this is still prime season for enjoying Denali’s diversity of breeding birds along with the colorful blushes of blooming wildflowers on the tundra.
We still have space available for our sessions beginning June 6, June 10th and June 17th at Camp Denali during the two Special Emphasis Sessions mentioned above. Give us a call at (907) 683-2290 to discuss personally experiencing this exciting time of year!
June 26, 2010
Perhaps you have been hearing at your local seafood counter that the Copper River red salmon are in. According to Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Copper River commercial fishery peaked around June 4 with 26,200 fish passing through the sonar site daily. To date this season, more than 417,000 have entered the Copper River system en route to spawning grounds, with more still on their way. In mid-May, the fist Copper River sockeye salmon (“red” is a term used to describe sockeye salmon) arrived in Seattle and the 46-pound fish received the red carpet treatment as it disembarked the Alaska Airlines plane on it’s way to the kitchen of a top local chef. Growing up in Seattle, this was always an exciting and much anticipated time of year. We often featured this prized fish at neighborhood BBQs, park potlucks and boating excursions. In the Puget Sound area, we were won over by the flavor and the successful marketing campaign of the Copper River fishery.
Since being transplanted to Alaska, I have happily been able to routinely incorporate salmon into my diet through a variety of means: smoked salmon snacks in winter, fresh grilled salmon dinners by summer and a stack of fresh caught frozen fillets that line my freezer waiting to hit the table mid winter. Like so many of those in the state now, as many generations have done before, I may travel some distance when the fish are running to secure salmon for the winter. I’ve now finally seen the infamous Copper River and participated in the Alaskan tradition of dip-netting for reds as they make their way by the thousands each day upriver toward their spawning grounds. Fishing for salmon, whether by net at the mouth of the river, rods from a boat or shore, or dip-nets on the Copper or Kenai Rivers, is very much an Alaskan way of life and economic powerhouse, not to mention a way to secure nutritious, healthy and wild grown food for our tables. It is a very closely monitored fishery, and so far, one that seems to be quite healthy.
In the spirit of celebrating the season of the salmon, here is a recipe straight from our Camp Denali and North Face Lodge kitchens this year. May your tables be rich with a taste of the Alaskan wilds!
*Note: Prepare vinaigrette at least two hours before serving to allow flavors to meld well. The recipe is loose to allow for chef’s discretion.
1 qt grape tomatoes
½ shallot, minced
½ C fresh lemon juice
zest from 1 lemon
parsley, finely cut
tarragon, finely cut
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Cook salmon as desired (we prefer using our barbeque grill) and spoon vinaigrette atop before serving. Serves 4
It is our pleasure to present Dispatches, a journal of the goings on at Camp Denali & North Face Lodge. Written by members of our staff, Dispatches is an opportunity to peek into the special sightings notebook, brush up on Denali National Park issues, read about our ongoing projects in sustainability, and maybe get a whiff of what’s cooking in the kitchens. Dispatches will carry on through the winter, when we hope to share stories of snowy ski adventures, deep cold, and the events of a small Alaskan community.